Battlefield 5 is without doubt one of the most perplexing video game releases of recent years. Not because there isn’t a thunderous, entertaining World War II multiplayer shooter here, because there is. But because it is so resolutely unfinished.
Even putting aside the staggered release that publisher EA has begun to put into practice (with EA Access subscribers and Deluxe Edition owners getting to play the game early), Battlefield 5 arrives on its official release date with chunks missing. Faded out menu options with promised December release dates for the Tides of War multiplayer meta-game, the practice range and even an entire chapter of an already brief campaign mode. Not to mention the absence of Battlefield’s take on the Battle Royale phenomenon; its 64-player, last-man-standing skirmish now due in March next year.
Most baffling is whether any of this is intentional or not. EA still seems to be wrestling with its approach to its big-ticket blockbusters, after pledging to ditch the paid-for season pass (and lose the highly controversial loot boxes that blighted Star Wars Battlefront II last year) the company has moved to a model of free regular updates. A fine enough principle in this age of games-as-service and immovable competition such as Fortnite. A model which is fast becoming an industry-standard.
So, yes, it’s fine for games to release as a base for improvement and addition. But Battlefield V feels so slim and scrappy right now, that EA releasing it as a finished product and charging £50 for the pleasure could be charitably described as the publisher ‘pushing its luck’.
This has resulted in a touch of bewilderment and lack of buzz. An unusual predicament for one of the industry’s most high-profile military shooters. A bungled release is a shame, because the game underneath can often be terrific.
The sprawling 64-player skirmishes that Battlefield has made its name on haven’t been this explosive since the rambunctious Bad Company. It is furious and often relentless, soldiers tearing through immaculately built maps that capture that haunting blend of beauty and destruction. The blood and thunder war carving trenches through the vivid colours of the French countryside, or picturesque towns crumbling to nothing against the snowy backdrop of the Norwegian fjords.
That destruction can be the anchor for Battlefield V’s thrills. The maps, contrary to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 tight, twisting arenas, are more naturalistic spreading over large spaces with pockets of buildings ready to be blown to smithereens. You can camp yourself in the bell-tower of a local church, but a well placed rocket can bring the whole thing (and you) crashing down to earth.
Buildings and outposts explode in a shower of concrete or splinters of wood, which can significantly alter a match over the course of a round. It’s all part of the sheer physicality of Battlefield, marrying DICE’s almost peerless skill with thunderous audio and a grounding in the world that feels hardy and dirty. Bullets ping and ricochet, hits and headshots greeted with a queasy thud. It has the almost constant feeling of chaos, but in a good way, bombarding you with the sturm und drang of war while asking you to keep your senses.
This is drilled in on with a more significant focus on teamplay. You are assigned a squad of four, as before, but the benefits of sticking together have been significantly increased. You can be revived quicker by a buddy, and class roles, particularly the medic, are more defined due to a relative paucity of resources for each soldier. When soldiers are falling as quickly as they do in Battlefield V, having players that can whisk around the map instantly reviving fallen comrades is essential to completing objectives. And you get your rewards for helping others, medics for healing, support classes for resupplying ammunition.
The standout addition to Battlefield V’s multiplayer is unquestionably the Grand Operations mode, which builds on Battlefield 1’s Operations by spreading large-scale matches across several ‘days’, maps and match-types. You often start with one team on assault, looking to blow up AA-guns and the like. The victor of each day will see a benefit going into the next, while tied games are settled with a survival-based tie-breaker.
It is a terrific set-up, making the most of Battlefield V’s efforts to capture a sense of all-out war. Grand Operations, with its text interludes that create a small but significant narrative thread, makes you feel part of something bigger. An impressive feat for a multiplayer game of this sort.
At its core, then, Battlefield V plays as well as the series ever has. Though an unwelcome amount of glitches niggle at games, suggesting that it wasn’t just the absent modes that needed longer in the oven. Players popping out of prone inexplicably (and often fatally), corpses pirouetting skywards and pieces of the scenery hanging in the air.
Some of these find their way into the single-player War Stories mode, but the campaign is largely more polished, if ultimately inessential. Battlefield V has made a good deal of the fact it has a solo campaign, when its closest competitor Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 does not. But the commitment to its execution doesn’t entirely justify.
The War Stories are three standalone adventures of around two hours each (with a fourth to come). Rather than the familiar WW2 beats as part of a charging army in Normandy on the march to Berlin, Battlefield V looks at the war’s ‘unexplored’ stories. So you have a British pair of the almost mythological Secret Boat Service sent on a sabotage mission in the sun and sand of Africa. A young Norwegian rebel looking to stop the Nazi production of heavy water in the icy climes of her home country. And a squad of Senegalese Tirailleurs drafted in from the colony to defend France.
The concept is good, casting a light on parts of the war I wasn’t familiar with. Yet War Stories can’t help but suffer from a sense of tonal disconnect, often trying to conflate comic-book heroism with the horrors of war. Both approaches have their moments, but never manage to settle. The Norwegian story is arguably the most successful, with the teenaged Solveig braving the cold and Nazi occupation in a dark saboteur’s tale.
The stories each settle into a rhythm that opens with a linear shooting gallery, before opening up into a Far Cry-esque assault, where you have multiple objectives across a large map to recon and attack.
It’s all diverting enough for the brief time it will take you to blast through, but seems to focus on areas in which Battlefield does not necessarily excel. There is an over-reliance on wonky stealth and respawning enemies, with erratic AI veering from the brainless to the prescient.
Whether the fourth episode, which will focus on a German Tiger tank operative, will alter the formula with a vehicular twist when it arrives in a few weeks time remains to be seen.
And that’s the issue with Battlefield V in a nutshell. I would like to be able to say that in the weeks and months to come, the multiplayer modes will be fuller, the niggles less prevalent. The core of Battlefield V, that raucous and spectacular shooter, suggests that the future is bright. But while those questions hang in the air, this is a game too slim and scrappy to recommend fully. In due course, that could change. But by the time Battlefield V is where it should be, will it be too late?